Saturday, 20 May 2017

Chili Peppers, the Scoville Heat Scale, and a World Record

Chili peppers or chilis are known for the hot sensation that they produce in the mouth and digestive tract when they're eaten. The heat is produced by a chemical called capsaicin, which has health benefits when used appropriately. The hotness of the pepper is indicated by a number on the Scoville heat scale. Plant breeders have recently created a chili that is said to be so hot and have such a high Scoville number that it may be dangerous, depending on the amount that's eaten. The pepper may have medicinal uses, however.

Photo by Pixel2013, public domain license

Chili Peppers or Chilis

Chili peppers belong to the genus Capsicum, which in turn belongs to the nightshade family, or the Solanaceae. Bell peppers also belong to the genus Capsicum, but unlike their relatives they don't contain capsaicin and aren't hot. Chili and bell peppers contains seeds and are therefore fruits.

Eating chili peppers can irritate the digestive tract, causing a burning sensation—which can sometimes be severe—as well as a flushed face, tears, and sweating. Interestingly, though, researchers have found that although the lining of the digestive tract is temporarily irritated by hot pepper and may feel as though it's on fire, it's not being burned. Nevertheless, the abdominal pain created by the irritation and the nausea and vomiting that may accompany the pain may need medical treatment.

According to the American Chemical Society article referenced below, as someone becomes used to eating hot peppers, they become more tolerant of their effects. A person who is new to eating peppers may experience the most severe effects. It therefore seems like a good idea to start by eating a very small quantity of pepper. It might also be a good idea to have a glass of milk on hand. The casein molecules in milk surround the capsaicin and wash it away.

The Scoville Heat Scale

The Scoville heat scale is named after Wilbur Scoville, a pharmacist who created the scale in 1912. The Scoville rating depends on the capsaicin concentration. Pure capsaicin has a rating of 16 million Scoville Heat Units, or SHU. Bell peppers have a rating of 0 SHU. According to Guinness World Records, the hottest chili pepper at the moment is the Carolina Reaper, which was bred by the PuckerButt Pepper Company in the United States. The full name of the chili is Smokin Ed's Carolina Reaper. The fruit has an average rating of 1,569,300 SHU, but some specimens may have a rating as high as 2 million SHU.

Chili Peppers
Photo by Hans, public domain license

The Dragon's Breath Chili

Information about a new contender for the title of the world's hottest chile pepper has been sent to the Guinness Word Records organization. The Dragon's Breath chili was created as a joint project by a plant breeder in Wales and professors at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom. It reportedly has a rating of 2.48 million SHU. The fruit is orange-red in colour and is about the size of a fingernail.

The new pepper is so hot that eating it might be dangerous as well as painful. The creators have suggested that it could cause anaphylactic shock in some people and block the airways, although this statement is a bit puzzling. Anaphylactic shock is an extreme and very dangerous type of allergic response that affects the whole body, including the airways. Someone would have to be allergic to capsaicin in order to develop this reaction. Still, the pepper has such a high Scoville rating that it might cause harmful effects when eaten. It wasn't created as food, however. The breeders of the chili think that the oil inside it—which contains capsaicin— could be useful as an anesthetic.

Capsaicin in Medicinal Creams

Capsaicin is used in creams to relieve pain from sore muscles and joints. Based on the reports that I've read, it seems to be quite effective for some conditions, including arthritis. It may cause a burning sensation to begin with, but this is often followed by pain relief. The most common explanation for its action is that it reduces the amount of substance P, a neurotransmitter that transmits pain signals. Neurotransmitters control the passage of nerve impulses from one neuron to another. It's interesting that capsaicin has benefits as well as disadvantages. The effects seem to depend on the method of application, the dose, and individual sensitivity to the chemical.


Hot peppers from the American Chemical Society
Capsaicin information from HealthLinkBC (a British Columbia government organization)